My Kingdom for a Needle

I am exhausted. I tried to stay up late enough to catch the absentee ballots from Washington County. Alas, I did not quite make it. (You better bet I will be drinking all the caffeine today.) But someone else did not quite make it through the night. Or rather, something. What was it? The New York Times election night needle.

To understand why the Times made the needle, read this really great explainer. The super short version: it tries to forecast the results of that particular election day, accounting for things like uncounted votes. On television, analysts and large interactive screens can show how, usually, urban districts are counted first then followed by slower-to-return rural areas. But for people following results solely online, those nuances might well be lost. Enter the needle.

Trust the Needle
Trust the Needle

Last night, like much of the Twitterverse I follow for politics, I had the needle open in one tab. But as the results began to come in, something odd was happening on the Times’ results page. The votes were being displayed in a precinct-by-precinct fashion in Allegheny, Washington, and Greene Counties. But Westmoreland was oddly grey. It turned out, the county elections board was not, I suppose, digitally publishing the precinct results, only county-wide.

Whilst the Needle spins…
Whilst the Needle spins…

Fun fact, the needle’s model is apparently built on precinct results. So how do you have a needle if something like 30% of the model’s required or expected data will not be available? The Times tweeted about it a few times, but ultimately pulled it down. Better to not have it and be right than have it wrong just to have it.

Needle down…
Needle down…

But that brings me to the second point about the needle. Well done to BuzzFeed’s Decision Desk HQ, who were presciently concerned about the ability of the county to get precinct level results up online. So they sent a reporter, as in a human being, to Westmoreland to get the analogue results and then upload them to BuzzFeed’s own results spreadsheet. (I never did find a BuzzFeed live results page.)

Who knows the budget difference between the New York Times’s graphics/politics desks and that of BuzzFeed’s, but the ability to put a single person in Westmoreland made the difference for BuzzFeed, whose coverage via Decision Desk HQ, made for a more compelling following because they were,  old school like, reading out results as they came in via reporters. And because there were no exit polls in the election, we had to wait for all the votes. Strangely, it almost felt like watching a UK general election where you have to wait hours for some constituencies to announce results. Though this election had a noticeable lack of Raving Monster Loony candidates.

I bring up the BuzzFeed contribution to the night because it does show how sometimes the sheer fact of placing a reporter on the ground can yield tremendous results. Come November, no, I don’t think any single media organisation can afford to put a reporter in every single US county. But I would bet the Times will be working on how to better precinct proof their needle.

Credit for the piece goes to Nate Cohn, Josh Katz, Sarah Almukhtar, and Matthew Bloch.

The Wall Today

This past Sunday I had a nice treat in the New York Times. They printed a piece looking at the state of the US-Mexican border wall as it is today. And not only was it an article, but it was a full-page article.

The Wall today
The Wall today

There isn’t a lot to say about it in particular. But what I really did like was the decision by the designer to tilt the map at an angle. Normally we would see a straight east-to-west, right-to-left map, but here the axis is more southeast-to-northwest, right-to-left map. And that creates a nice space for text in the lower left area, which the designer here did in fact use for the main block of text.

Credit for the piece goes to Sarah Almukhtar.

When No Change or Growth Is the Story

For many years I would often tell people that sometimes a visualisation can be “boring”, because the data itself is boring—a lack of growth in a market, no real mergers, or even steady and consistent but unspectacular growth. Those can all be stories, even if they likely result in very monotone choropleths or straight line charts or perfect steps of bar charts.

And then there are times when the lack of growth or change, when visualised, can be very powerful. I wanted to share this piece from the New York Times with everyone because it does just that.

Starting from the Sandy Hook Massacre and moving through to Parkland
Starting from the Sandy Hook Massacre and moving through to Parkland

You really need to click through and see the scale and scope, because the designers behind this did a fantastic job of capturing that sense of lack of change in a very large and expansive piece.

Credit for the piece goes to the New York Times Editorial Board.

Short and Long Term

One week ago today, President Trump touted soaring stock prices as an indicator of a roaring economy. In truth, stock market prices are not that. They are driven by fundamentals, such as GDP growth, wage increases, and inflation. Furthermore stock prices can be fickle and volatile. Whereas a recession does not begin overnight, the factors build over a period of time, a stock market correction can happen in a single day.

So one week hence, the stock market has seen fully one-third of its gains over the past year wiped out. That is over $1 trillion gone from market funds, 401ks, college saving funds, &c. But again, not to freak people out, these things can and do happen. But because they can and do happen, presidents do not often go touting the stock market as it can come back and bite them.

This morning’s paper therefore had a pleasant graphic to accompany a story about the recent declines. And it was on the front page.

The front page
The front page

Like with the choropleth story I covered a little over a week ago, the graphic in today’s paper was not revolutionary nor earth shattering. It was two line charts as one graphic. What was neat, however, was how it supported two different articles.

One graphic, two articles
One graphic, two articles

But when I looked closer I found what was really neat: context.

Notice the little arrow…
Notice the little arrow…

The chart does a great job of showing that context of adding nearly $8 trillion in value over the course of the administration. But then that sharp decline at the right-side of the chart is blown out into its own detail to show how all was steady until Friday’s economic news was released. I think perhaps the only drawback is how tiny and fragile that arrow feels. I wonder if something a little bolder would better draw the eye or connect the dots between the two charts. Maybe even moving the “… and the last week” line above the chart line would work.

Anyway, I was just curious to see how the charts were depicted on the web. And then lo and behold I was treated to two graphics on the home page. The other is for an article about flood risks to chemical plants, not part of this post. But the focus of our post on the stock market was the same as in print. But here is the homepage with two different graphics, always a treat for a designer like myself.

The New York Times homepage this morning
The New York Times homepage this morning

Credit for the piece goes to the New York Times graphics department.

The World Grows On (Part III)

A few days ago I posted about the front cover graphic for the New York Times that used a choropleth to explore 2017 economic growth. Well, this morning whilst looking for something else, I came across the online version of the story. And I thought it would be neat to compare the two.

A very nice graphic
A very nice graphic

Again, nothing too crazy going on here. But the most immediately obvious change is the colour palette. Instead of using that green set, here we get a deep, rich blue that fades to light very nicely. More importantly, that light tan or beige colour contrasts far better against the blue than the green in the print version.

The other big change is to the small multiple set at the bottom. Here they have the space to run all twelve datasets horizontally. In the earlier piece, they were stacked six by two. It worked really well, but this works better. Here it is far easier to compare the height of each bar to the height of bars for other countries.

Credit for the piece goes to Karl Russell.

The World Grows On (Part II)

Earlier this month I wrote-up a piece from the Economist that looked at 2018 GDP growth globally. I admitted then—and still do now—that it was an oddly sentimental piece given the frequency with which I made graphics just like that in my designer days of youth and yore. Today, we have the redux, a piece from the New York Times. Again, nothing fancy here. As you will see, we are talking about a choropleth map and bar charts in small multiple format. But why am I highlighting it? Front page news.

Choropleth on the front page? More please.
Choropleth on the front page? More please.

I just like seeing this kind of simple, but effective data visualisation work on the front page of a leading newspaper.

Lots of green on that map
Lots of green on that map

I personally would have used a slightly different palette to give a bit more hint to the few negative growth countries in the world—here’s lookin’ at you, Venezuela—but overall it works. And the break points in the bin seem a bit arbitrary unless they were chosen to specifically highlight the called-out countries.

Then on the inside we get another small but effective graphic.

Page 4
Page 4

It doesn’t consume the whole page, but sits quietly but importantly at the top of the article.

The world's leading economies, on their own
The world’s leading economies, on their own

There the small multiples show the year-on-year change—nothing fancy—for the world’s leading economies. A one-colour print, it works well. But, I particularly enjoy the bit with China. Look at how the extreme growth before the Great Recession is handled, just breaking out of the container. Because it isn’t important to read growth as 13.27% (or whatever it was), just that it was extremely high. You could almost say, off the charts.

Overall, it was just a fun read for a Sunday morning.

Credit for the piece goes to Karl Russell and the New York Times graphics department.

Where It’ll Be Too Warm for the Winter Olympics

The Winter Olympics are creeping ever closer and so this piece from the New York Times caught my eye. It examines the impact of climate change on host cities for the Winter Olympics. Startlingly, a handful of cities from the past almost century are no longer reliable enough, i.e. cold and snow-covered, to host winter games.

This screenshot is of a bar chart that looks at temperatures, because snow and ice obviously require freezing temperatures. The reliability is colour-coded and at first I was not a fan—it seemed unnecessary to me.

At first I did not care for the colours in the bars
At first I did not care for the colours in the bars

But then further down the piece, those same colours are used to reference reliability on a polar projection map.

But then this map changed my mind
But then this map changed my mind

That was a subtle, but well appreciated design choice. My initial aversion to the graphic and piece was changed by the end of it. That is always great when designers can pull that off.

Credit for the piece goes to Kendra Pierre-Louis and Nadja Popovich

The Internationalism in Sport

Whilst away, I came upon this piece in the following of my offseason baseball news. The New York Times published it between Christmas and New Years and the piece looks at the origins of sports persons in European football leagues compared to several American sports leagues, including American football, baseball, and basketball.

I was most confused by US women's football, which I had not realised has not been a single continuous organisation
I was most confused by US women’s football, which I had not realised has not been a single continuous organisation

The piece features an opening set of small multiples comparing all the leagues. Maddeningly, I wanted details and mouseovers and annotations at the start. Fortunately, as the reader continues through the article, each small multiple becomes big and the reader can explore the details of the league.

Credit for the piece goes to Gregor Aisch, Kevin Quealy, and Rory Smith.

Jones–Moore Election Results

Apologies for the lack of posts over the last week or so, I have alternately been on holiday or sick while spending other time on my annual Christmas card. This will also be the last post for 2017 as I am on holiday until the new year. But before I go, I want to take a look at the election night graphics for the Alabama US Senate special election yesterday.

I am going to start with the New York Times, which was where I went first last night after returning from work. What was really nice was there graphic on their homepage. It provided a snapshot fo the results before I even got to the results page.

The homepage of the New York Times last night
The homepage of the New York Times last night

The results page then had the standard map and table, but also this little dashboard element.

I'm spinning my wheels…
I’m spinning my wheels…

We all know how I feel about dashboard things. To put it tersely: not a fan. But what I did enjoy about the experience was its progression. The bars below filled in as the night progressed, and the range in the vote-ometers narrowed. But that same sort of design could be applied to other graphics representing the narrowing of likely outcomes.

The second site I visited was the Washington Post. Like the Times, their homepage also featured an interactive graphic, another choropleth map.

A different page, a different map
A different page, a different map

There are two key differences between the maps. The Times map uses four bins for each party whereas the Post simplifies the page to two: leading and won. The second difference is the placement of the map. The Post’s map is a cropping of a larger national map versus the Times that uses a sole map of the state.

For a small homepage graphic, bits of both work rather well. The Times cuts away the unnecessary map controls and neighbouring states. But the space is small and maybe not the best for an eight-binned choropleth. In the smaller space, the Post’s simplified leading/won tells the story more effectively. But on a larger space that is dedicated to the results/story, the more granular results are far more insightful.

On a quick side note, the Post’s page included some context in addition to the standard results graphics. This map of the Black Belt and how it correlates to regions of Democratic votes in 2016 provides an additional bit of background as to how the votes played out.

Note, the Black Belt was named for the black soil, not the slaves.
Note, the Black Belt was named for the black soil, not the slaves.

Credit for the piece goes to the design teams of the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Missile Defence Systems

North Korea tested another missile yesterday. And while we do not have the precise details, I happened to come across this video from the New York Times exploring the different means by which the United States defends against missile threats. It makes use of some nice illustrations and motion graphics to explain ballistic missiles and missile defence systems.

The Patriot, shown here, defends against theatre-level weapons
The Patriot, shown here, defends against theatre-level weapons

Credit for the piece goes to Robin Stein and Drew Jordan.